John Grant is not your typical singer-songwriter. Born in Michigan in 1968, he was brought up in an orthodox Methodist household, at odds with his emerging sexuality. In high school, fellow students, on occasion, bullied him both physically and emotionally. It took Grant until his mid-20s to feel comfortable with being gay.
“Being in school, whenever I laughed or smiled I would turn to find someone staring at me with this terrible hatred and disgust,” Grant said in an interview with The Guardian. “I had to control everything — control my voice, control my facial expressions, control my hair and my clothes, and where I walked and where I sat — at every moment. I think that drove me to terrible anxiety.”
Said anxiety lead Grant down a dangerous road of unsafe sex, drugs, and copious amounts of alcohol. While he eventually kicked the bottle in 2004, it only pushed Grant wholeheartedly to sex and cocaine-fueled parties.
Eventually, Grant moved to Germany to study. On his return to Colorado, he started a band, The Czars. While critics admired the band’s albums, the public laid silent. And tensions among the bandmates resulted in disbandment after 12 years.
In 2010, Grant debuted his solo career with Queen of Denmark. Described as a “deeply personal album,” it explores Grant’s struggles with alcohol and drug addiction as well as his struggle to reconcile his sexuality.
Reveling in the success of the album, however, didn’t last long for Grant. In 2011, he learned he contracted HIV.
“In my particular situation it’s not very pleasant to have to admit that the fact I have HIV is because I was living in a fantasy world where I didn’t matter at all,” he told The Sydney Morning Herald in 2016. “I was messing around with my life and indulging in destructive behaviors and ended up getting a disease that could have totally been avoided. When I look at the fact that there are millions of children in Africa with HIV, who never got to choose, it makes me need to figure out why I let that happen to myself.”
But Grant is turning his life around, living his truth, and writing critically acclaimed songs. And he incorporates synth pop and industrial music on 2015’s Grey Tickles, Black Pressure, and 2018’s Love Is Magic.
“‘Is He Strange’ is a pure love song about how you cannot own or possess another person,” Grant said in the interview. “It’s about letting go of someone you still love and moving on and also how it is possible to continue to love while you are letting go. Much easier said than done.”
Critic Mary Anne Hobbs says Grant’s songs can be painfully self-aware. “Most songwriting, even if it’s based on a true story … is embellished in some way. But John’s lyrics — they’re so true they might as well be written in blood.”
Pioneering singer and broadcaster, Tom Robinson was one of the first out rockers to mix music with LGBTQ liberation. He says Grant’s album, Grey Tickles, Black Pressure, exudes powerful confidence.
“If I had heard a song like ‘Snug Slacks’ when I was a gay teenager in the ’60s, I think he could have saved me 10 or 15 years of heartache and pain,” Robinson says. “It’s so great to hear somebody making music this unashamed and yet this irresistible.”
Grant received a Best International Male Solo Artist nomination at the 2014 BRITS alongside Eminem and Justin Timberlake. Sinead O’Connor and Tracey Thorn have guested on Grant’s records, and he’s sung live with Alison Goldfrapp and Kylie Minogue. He recorded the “Kindling” duet with Elbow then went on to tour with them in spring 2018. Films such as Andrew Haigh’s drama Weekend and Daisy Asquith’s Queerama include his music. In 2016, he fronted BBC Radio 4’s Reimagining The City, taking listeners around Reykjavik, Iceland — his home since 2012; in April 2017 he curated North Atlantic Flux: Sounds from Smoky Bay in Hull, showcasing thrilling and innovative musicians from Scandinavia and Iceland.
Grant speaks four languages: Spanish, Russian, German, and Swedish. He is an avid collector of films, and his latest songs make references to Madeline Kahn, Geraldine Page, and Angie Dickinson.
Whether younger or older than he, John Grant, as an artist and a person should not be taken for granted.
Grant performs Dec. 12 at The State Room, 638 S. State St., 8 p.m. Tickets $27, thestateroom.com